2nd Newsletter.
    Enhancing the Employability of
    Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education

  • EDI

  • Is HE making non-traditional graduates more employable?
    As part of the EMPLOY network’s work we have completed a comparative report on policy and research related to non-traditional graduate employability across Europe. We conclude that HE seems to be seen as a solution to several problems related to employment in Europe. Employability is a concept used in European as well as national policies in the partner countries and even if there are differences in the definitions of the concept in each of the countries there appears to be an identifiable trend across the network: there has been shift of emphasis towards what individuals can to do to become more employable (rather than what institutions can do). HE is seen as the means for giving HE graduates the competencies useful in the labour market. In several countries there is an ongoing discussion about the match and mismatch between HE graduates’ levels of education and skills needed on the labour market, where a closer relationship between employers and HE institutions is required. However, employability is not the same as employment. It focuses on the skills and competencies that make HE graduates more likely to gain employment, but there is no guarantee. In recent years, the economic crisis has had a major effect on employment with a growing north-south divide in Europe. In three of the partner countries, Ireland, Portugal and Spain the crisis led to mass unemployment and increased precarity. HE graduates often have difficulties in getting work or find themselves overqualified for jobs with bad working conditions. In some countries HE is seen as an instrument for dealing with unemployment by offering more places in HE institutions. Even students’ perspectives on HE is affected, viewing it as an investment for their future lives in the labour market, rather than as an arena for learning and development. What are than the consequences for non-traditional students? HE has changed from elite to mass education as a consequence of widening participation and the development of access policies aimed at encouraging non-traditional students into HE.

    However, there are no policies or statistics that offer insight into the employability of non-traditional graduates. It might be cynical to propose that HE has in itself become the means for achieving equality in employment; expected to create graduates that are equally competent and prepared to compete on the labour market. In several partner countries though both HE institutions and graduates’ competences vary in status which affects graduate outcomes and this of course has an impact on equality more generally. Maybe, some might claim that it is the individual graduate’s own fault if failing in the competition. Thereby issues of age, class, disability, ethnicity and gender are hidden behind an individual market agenda. There is a need for research concerning the employability of non-traditional graduates from HE, especially from a student perspective. There is also a need to continue to critically examine the challenges HE in Europe is facing. We also welcome a closer relationship between HE institutions and employers that takes the perspective of non-traditional students into account. The comparative as well as the country reports from the six partner countries are available on the web site

  • 1
    Activities of the project
    Start-up event in Warwick University
  • University of Warwick held a second start-up event on 2 December 2015 with employers, careers advisors, career development directors and alumni staff within the university. After a short presentation providing a brief overview of the main objectives of the Erasmus+ EMPLOY project the session focused on facilitating discussion between university staff and employers on questions related to employability. Employers began by highlighting that at a number of institutions, including their own, innovations in recruiting had been recently introduced into the application process to promote wider opportunity. The aforementioned changes have been taken either in the form of blind screening or as a commitment to no longer using UCAS points as a selection tool. In the UK, and for Republic of Ireland applicants, the UCAS Tariff system is a means of differentiating students based on grades as a means of giving them places at UK universities. When turning to the issue of graduate skills that are considered by graduate skills of particular value the following were identified:
    • Social skills, particularly with respect to the confidence to approach and present themselves appropriately in different formats and situations;
    • Flexibility, the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, expectations and commitments;
    • Ability and endeavour to thoroughly research the employer, tailoring to fit the values and expectations gleaned from this analysis;
    • What special circumstances do non-traditional students have to reach the labour market?
    • What special support do non-traditional students need to become employable?
    • Presenting and contextualising life experiences and skills effectively within an interview context.

    An interesting discussion that emerged from amongst employers observed that in the current environment the specific institution at which the student studies could be more significant than whether or not the student is traditional or non-traditional. In this regard there was an acknowledgement of the success of Warwick in having become a target for employers.
    Employers emphasised that an institutional attendance to the importance of societies, facilities and careers service might off-set this hierarchy.
    This led to a broader discussion of the significance of an existing hierarchy amongst universities in the UK visited by employers. It was noted in this context that a larger percentage of non-traditional students are at newer post-1992 institutions.
    A final point in the meeting entailed considering the challenges for the future. Here there was a particular emphasis from both employers and careers advisors on the need to change perceptions amongst both non-traditional students as well as employers, in establishing greater links and understanding in what employers are looking for, where they can find it, as well as amongst students in terms of what they need be equipped with in order to succeed in the job market.

  • 2
    Preliminary results of the Student interviews
  • Polish non-traditional students began their studies either immediately after graduation or after a short break - one, two years later. Regarding age range – they were between twenty-two and thirty years old. Half of the surveyed group were people who worked full-time, four persons were unemployed and six of them had a part time or temporary job. Only five persons took up a job connected with their previous studies. The vast majority of our interviewees worked in jobs not related to the field of their studies and treated their work as temporary. This kind of job allows them to make their living (for example work in the shop, supermarket, office work, at the gas station). We can say, that this is typical for our interviewees. The economic status of the family in terms of national household income rates can be defined as average. Students did not talk about substantial financial problems in their families, nevertheless they pointed out that the tuition fee is a challenge for them. None of the interviewees undertook any extracurricular activities related to job market skills improvement. Some of them took part in training and internships when organized or proposed by the University (within the framework Human Capital Programs EFS “Praktyczne kształcenie dla rynku pracy”/“Education for the labour market” www.praktyczneksztalcenie.dsw.edu.pl ).

    Apart from the programmes offered by the university, there was no distinctive, individual initiative on their side, when it came to job market skills improvement. The explanation they gave was lack of time, and this may stem from the fact that the non-traditional student is focused on finding any available employment. They often take up jobs not connected with their studies, and not related to their education profile. It seems that they postpone any engagement in courses and training until after graduation. Specific activities that they plan to undertake, in terms of education and non-formal education is a response to the specific needs resulting from the nature of the work and the specific needs of the workplace.

  • 2
    Preliminary results of the Student interviews
  • The Seville team has interviewed 13 students, 6 women and 7 men, each from a different knowledge area (Arts and Humanities, Sciences, Health Sciences, Engineering, Architecture, Social Sciences and Law). All these students were in their final year of an undergraduate program and represented the different non-traditional situations (first generation; students from low educational and economical background; students with a disability; students with children; students from other ethnical/cultural groups, etc.).
    As for graduates, 10 interviews have been carried out. Again, these non-traditional graduates have diplomas in different fields (with more representation from the Social Science area) and fulfil one or several non-traditional profiles.
    The analysis of the content of the interviews is in process. A first exploration has been done emphasizing the following topics:

    • How non-traditional students and graduates value their university education in relation to the employability skills.
    • Their conceptions regarding employability: which the most important skills to be successful in the labour market are.
    • What the factors that promote or hinder transition to work are and how they relate to the non-traditional profiles.
    • What the employers and staff highlight in relation to the effective transition to the world of work of non-traditional graduates.

  • 3
    Preliminary results of the Student interviews

  • The interviews undertaken with Portuguese non-traditional students revealed some points of interest. All our interviewees have already a relevant working experience: the younger students doing short non-qualified tasks during their vacations, or free time, whilst the majority of older students had already a profession before entering university. The perspectives of these groups of students towards employability seem different. Younger students think that their participation in extracurricular activities to be important as a competitive advantage (the degree itself is no longer assuring employment). Also they think it is important, during their academic trajectory, to perform well and have a pride in a job well-done; and link this to employability: they claim that job opportunities depend a great deal on personal or informal references given to employers by professors or other social actors.

    Most younger students intend to leave Portugal: some want to try a career outside; and some want to widen their knowledge and experience and use this as a competitive advantage when coming back to Portugal. Finally, younger students seem to accept that a state of almost absolute readiness is fundamental in their chances to get a job. On the contrary, older non-traditional students are critical on this notion of readiness demanded by the employers and much more pessimistic, towards the “labour market” or employers. Mostly they came to HE motivated by professional reasons. They are very happy with their courses as they claim it had improved their professional performance –they apply daily what they have learned.

  • 4
    Preliminary results of the Employers and Staff interviews
  • Employers from a variety of sectors and organisational size, as well as university staff, have been very generous in sharing their experience and knowledge of graduate employability and recruitment. The Irish research team, based at Maynooth University, aims to build further on this knowledge as the project progresses.
    Skills and attributes
    It seems that employers place a high value on graduate skills and attributes such as ‘experience’, ‘worldliness’, ‘flexibility’, ‘potential’, ‘communication’ and ‘social skills’. The value of work experience directly-related to occupational and discipline area was particularly important.
    There is some sense of ambiguity emerging about the value of academic performance. It may be the case now that a ‘good degree’ is the baseline for employers, something almost taken for granted, and that it is the added value of graduates’ skills and attributes that make them stand out or not.
    Recruitment process
    A number of participants remarked on how competitive, from an employer point of view, graduate recruitment has become over the last decade. This competition, though, seems to be targeted on a relatively small number of ‘highly desirable’ graduates. Part of the shift in this notion of evolving recruitment processes is a move towards a more longitudinal selection process. This can start with employer brand-positioning on campus which is aimed at raising awareness to new undergraduates; then a move to employer-run undergraduate competitions which start to identify talented students; through to highly sought-after internships; and, finally, to rigorous, multi-staged graduate recruitment and post-recruitment development processes. In that sense, employers are working back and forward along both sides of the moment of graduation in their selection.

    However, it seems that this heavy investment in resources which is targeting a small proportion of the graduate population can only be funded by larger organisations. Smaller and medium-sized employers (SMEs) do not have the capacity to engage in such low yield-selection processes – nor do they have the resources to commit fully to student placement programmes as they rarely have the capacity to provide comprehensive mentorship for students in the workplace.

    University role
    Somewhat surprisingly, there was a sense, from some employers, that universities have become too vocational and are focusing too much on very specific, niche discipline areas. A number of employers talked about the need for a more rounded education and, more than one, noted the liberal arts model which is associated with early undergraduate studies in the United States.

    «Universities have an obligation to give a rounded education» (employer)

    There was also an acknowledgement from employers that they shouldn’t, and don’t expect, graduates to be ‘the finished article’ and, rather, that they will need to invest in post-recruitment training and development if they want to retain high-quality graduates. Employers put a high value on the work done in university careers and placement offices but suspect they are under-funded and, possibly, not highly valued by some within the academic community.
    Placement and work-experience programmes were regarded as really important aspects of students’ learning which should be developed more. Maynooth University’s placement programme has evolved over the years from a department-specific initiative into a cross-university service which is highly regarded nationally. Similarly, the university’s career office had evolved from a more straightforward information service into a learning space which aims to assist students develop and promote their non-academic and life skills and experiences.

  • 4
    Preliminary results of the Employers and Staff interviews
  • Analysis of the interviews with Polish employers confirms the trend to emphasize soft skills as a key competence in order to improve the rate of success in the job market. Formal qualification, such as a degree, diploma which is adequate to a position one is applying for is a condition, of course, but it is not the ultimate factor, when it comes to the decision who will get the job and who won’t. Employers are saying “we came to the point where the diploma is just a formality, a box that needs to be ticked”. What are the expectations of the employers when it comes to graduates? Mainly, they are looking for an interesting personality, passionate people, and open-mindedness. They seek graduates who can engage and get involved and who understand that passion is part of team-building, creativity and/or can merge theory and practical skills while performing the job. “I’m looking for an employee, who will enchant me (..) I need to see a passion in him/her, need to hear how does he/ she see their future job, what kind of concept of it he/she has thought through…”

    Work experience matters as well, but employers are aware that young graduates, merely out of college, cannot demonstrate a certain level of job experiences that can be expected from someone who has been in the market for decades. That is why all extracurricular activities matter: summer jobs; voluntary work (when it comes to education – summer camps jobs as a guardian or counsellor); and/or any kind of internship. These practical experiences in particular job contexts are often a token of soft skills, such as: building and keeping relationships; ability to cooperate; dealing with conflicts and crisis. Employers are also looking for coherence and accuracy on what was written in a CV and how the candidate presents him/herself during the interview. Is he/she capable of pointing to his/her skills? Can he/she elaborate on the potential suggested in the content of the CV? The ability to cooperate with others, to organize his/herown work and a general curiosity of the world were also mentioned as important features of the prospective applicants.

  • 5
    Conference on Adult Learning – Seville, Spain
  • The Conference of the European Society for research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) Access, Learning Careers and Identities Network was held between 25th and 27th November 2015 at the University of Seville, in Spain. This conference was convened by Barbara Merrill (Warwick), Adrianna Nizinska (Lower Silesia) and Andrea Galimberti (Milano Bicocca), with the local support of José González-Monteagudo and Miguel A. Ballesteros (Seville). The theme of the conference was Continuity and Discontinuity in Learning Careers: Potentials for a Learning Space in a Changing World.
    Sixty delegates, from 14 countries, including North and South America as well as different regions of Europe participated in the event.
    There were papers, round-tables and poster sessions focused on the following areas across the wide range of adult education contexts:
    • Developing potentials for learning spaces in a changing world
    • The role and impact of learning careers in fostering continuity or discontinuity in learning biographies
    • Using concepts, theory, disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches to understanding continuities and discontinuities in learning careers
    • Inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity and disability
    • Methodological approaches to researching continuities and discontinuities in learning careers.

    Most of the national research teams of the EMPLOY project participated at this conference, which occurred in the same week of the meeting of the project teams. We presented several papers and we organized a round-table to disseminate our project, discussing the key issues of the project as well as contributions from the national teams regarding our reports, theoretical positions, case studies (based on our interviews) and the implications of these findings for enhancing employability of students and graduates. The round table showed clearly the big differences among the countries that are participating in the project, as a result of diversity of economic, historical and cultural contexts.
    Some of the papers presented at the conference were focused on social exclusion and non-traditional adult learners. Therefore, these papers were relevant for the teams of the EMPLOY project. At the moment the organizers of the conference are preparing an e-book with the papers presented during the Conference. Also it is under study a proposal for a book to be published by Sense Publishers.
    The feedback from the participants was very good on both the contents and atmosphere of the conference.

  • 6
    Students Voices
  • To become employable is viewed as an important task to many non-traditional students. They see it as a struggle. Here is the voice of one student who is in her late thirties and migrated from an EU-country to Sweden and is in her last year at Stockholm University:

    Everything goes quickly, there is only one year left which makes me anxious, I am nearly out of my mind. I think it will be very difficult, I do not know what I can say, but I talked to my classmates and some of them think it will be very nice to get a job, while I think it will be very tough. I am scared, as I do not know what it is going to be like.
    She fears uncertainty, is under pressure and floating. Her biographical learning involves emotional work. She can argue what the problems are, some are not possible to change, like age and ethnicity, others seem to be able to fix.

    This relates to different issues, in some way because I have Swedish as a second language, I am probably frightened, how, and who my employers will be, what kind of attitude are they going to have towards me. And partly because I am a little older – laughing – I am 38, but I think that everybody has different point of departure, different lives, so will be in my case too, so I am scared, I am scared really. They have problems with pronouncing my name Anastasija, I met different attitudes to my name… but also to my age, and they will get someone younger.

    But she stresses why it is so important to get a job at once when she graduates.

    … I need a job more than others at the programme, as I am older and have financial worries? … When I am ready with my study I have to find a job. I have to work at once to be able to support myself.

  • 6
    Students Voices
  • I think that age does matter, but not for me, not because I consider that I´m too old, it´s because the society thinks that at certain age, people are no longer… So, I know I am a person at risk of exclusion because I´m a woman, I'm older than forty-five years old and I´m middle class. Although I have studied, social class still matters
    - Female, Pedagogy Student, over 25 years
  • (Regarding what it is important to finding a job) Emotional intelligence… that is, the willingness to be or to do something and the willingness to control and manage your emotions and the world around you to achieve that. Then trying to acquire social skills, knowing how to find resources for life in general and especially for the working world, knowing how to see society from a critical standpoint, being proactive. One thing will attract the other, if you are proactive you can be sure that you will generate knowledge and relationships that will help you more than someone else who does not have that attitude, that’s why I think it is the key attitude. I think the training is a secondary question.
    - Female, Pedagogy Student, over 25 years
  • I think that in my transition to work, the internship I carried out was a key point. I was doing that internship on a voluntary basis; I was there for three years, three times a week. The more they gave me new tasks, the further I went, more new doors opened for me.
    - Male, Graduate in Psychology

  • 6
    Students Voices
  • I did many study visits by myself to learn more about the culture because I had never seen an Avocado, and I had to read a lot and visit the more experienced producers. I used the label of the university to visit them. I asked a lot of professors to organize visits to orchards and meet other experienced persons. My professors always encouraged us to take these extracurricular activities because three years is short to learn all we need. But this gave me solid basis to achieve some success in my professional life
    - Male, 27, Agronomy
  • I think that traditional students have an easier life. Why? Because their parents understand the importance of studying. They don’t need to fight the battles I had to, and still have to fight, because every day I have to justify why am I at the computer all day long, instead of doing all sorts of things. I had to stop studying during 5 or 6 years and that was a huge disadvantage, I disconnected myself from the social area and even stopped to read. I got lost! I think that traditional students have an easier life because their parents have a bigger academic background, are sensitive persons opened to new challenges, that have to do with Erasmus and that sort of things. My parents are not opened to none of that. They do not value nor understand why do I need to learn abroad if I can do it here.
    - Female, 31, Social Education
  • When I did my internship I was for some months in a publicity agency in Lisbon and one of the things that was rewarding was to get there and feel totally comfortable to do everything. They treat me as a professional from starters, never asked if I knew how to make something or if I had any difficulties, it was like “here, there’s this for you to do”. I think I was very lucky as to the place where I got a job. It seems to me as an enterprise that has a good idea on the time things take to be done (…) and I felt totally at ease. Every knowledge I had acquired in my course were valid to use in the working experience.
    - Male, 39, Communication Design

  • 6
    Students Voices
    // Being the non- traditional student
  • I have heard it all the time, at home as well, my husband came up with such silliness like : "your age, you should teach, not be taught". And when I start to study, my manager at my workplace asked me, if I’m the group prefect, and I said "no, why do you ask me this question?" And he said: "because it is the older who always get the job of group prefect. Do they call you grandma already?". I have to admit, it was hard, very hard. First year was very difficult, I had to take it, all this mean, petty comments, that workers, they don’t need to expand their horizons, educate, study.
    - Katarzyna
  • How the students make sense of university – work relations

    I feel like there is not enough practical courses. Theory is important, but often it is not synchronized with practical aspects. I highly appreciated all practical courses, such as study visits in prisons, centres for therapy and addictions and so on… (…) Experiencing different situations, meeting different people on a day-to-day basis, I guess only then, when we are in touch with practical aspects of the job, we start to realize what was the point of all this long, intensive studying. Personal insight and knowing oneself should be emphasis, in my opinion, on all studies related to education, because you need to know yourself first, to work with other people.
    - Anna
  • Students’ strategies on entering the labour market

    One should always have some alternatives while looking for a job. We can’t set our mind on one specific type of job only. We can’t make a plan that assumes only one path, for example just being a teacher, working at school and that’s it. It is because every job, teaching or no teaching, is not just related to one place, one school, one company, where we can perform our duties, there are many places and tasks, we just need to be patient, search in non-obvious places, be creative, look for alternatives. If it won’t work in this particular place, where can I go next and start again, not to get discouraged.
    - Ewa

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